The printer has to be one of the most popular accessories for PC users. Thankfully, the days of noisy dot matrix models (if you remember those) are long gone. These days, it’s possible to buy one that can do anything, from printing high-quality colour photos to churning out page after page of crisp office documents.
There’s no single printer that’s great at everything, though – which means you’ll need to decide what features are most important to you before you buy. Let’s take a look at the options…
The three main printer types
There are two main types of printer for general-purpose use, plus one if all you want to print is photos.
1. Inkjet printers
The best for all-round use is undeniably an inkjet printer. These use liquid ink to make marks on paper. The technology has now reached the point where models can print sharp text very quickly and very high quality colour photos onto paper sizes up to A3. Some can even print onto blank CDs. That just about covers everything anyone would want to print, which is why inkjets are so popular for home users.
The only catch with inkjet printers is that they can be costly to run, particularly for printing photos. Inkjet ink is expensive, particularly if you buy the same brand as the printer manufacturer — which all manufacturers recommend you do, of course.
You can use third-party (‘non-OEM’) ink cartridges, but some printer manufacturers try to prevent this using various methods. Refill companies have found ways around most of them, so this is more of an annoyance than a deal-breaker.
Almost all inkjet printers print in colour now, but be sure to buy one that uses separate ink tanks for each of its four colours — cyan, magenta, yellow and black. This makes it easier and cheaper to refill each one colour when it runs out, rather than replace a single combined cartridge that’s otherwise almost full.
2. Laser printers
Laser printers excel at producing text documents quickly, and low running costs make them ideal for heavy users. For a long time, the cheapest laser printers could only print in black and white – but now colour models are very affordable, too.
Cheaper colour laser printers aren’t as good as inkjets for printing photos, though. But they’re find for coloured documents, illustrations and for printing photos mixed with text, as in newsletters, for example.
Laser printers also have the advantage of producing prints that are water-fast. So if you plan to print posters, for example, think about using a laser printer — inkjet prints will run as soon as they get damp.
Laser printers can be inexpensively refilled just like inkjets and the same considerations (and manufacturer restrictions) apply. If you’re buying a colour laser printer, also look for one that uses separate colour ‘toner’ tanks for cheaper refills.
3. Dye-sublimation printers
If all you want to print is postcard-size colour photos from a digital camera, you might want to consider a compact dye-sublimation photo printer. These use special paper and ‘ink’ cassettes, and produce photos at home that you’ll struggle to tell apart from those produced by a photo lab.
‘Dye sub’ printers used to be the only way to print glossy photos, but inkjet printers have long since caught up with them (as long as you use special photo paper and not cheap photocopier paper). Since dye sub printers aren’t much use for anything else, that makes them difficult to recommend.